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Wildlife Rehabilitation During COVID

By McKenzie Joslin-Snyder, Portland Audubon, August 2020

While operating the Portland Audubon Wildlife Care Center during the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest hurdle we’ve had to overcome is social distancing. Proper use of masks, avoiding fomites, and thorough hand-hygiene became the least of our worries as the pandemic evolved from an abstract concept to a daily reality. Not only is the physical footprint of the facility relatively small (about 1500 square feet), but many animal care tasks require more than one person to safely and efficiently complete. Try and tube feed a heron and stay 6 feet apart from the person holding it—heron necks are long, but not that long.

Normally, the Portland Audubon Wildlife Care Center workforce is made up of a robust volunteer pool of over 150 trained individuals who provide animal care and outreach. It quickly became clear that it wouldn’t be responsible to continue our volunteer program at the same volume as before. We needed to develop a model of rehabilitation that would allow us to stay 6 feet apart; impossible when you’re talking about 13 people a day with overlapping work schedules. Dismissing all of those volunteers who give a cumulative 80 daily hours of care, advocacy, and enthusiasm was a staggering prospect. Fortunately, we found several ways to retain volunteer engagement and enable staff to fill in whatever gaps remained:

1. Phone forwarding: The most valuable overall community service we provide is public education. Our volunteers act as mediators of wildlife conflicts, answering roughly 10,000 calls every year regarding re-nesting, window strikes, mammals denning under buildings, helping turtles cross the road, and other wildlife problems. To maintain this presence, it was crucial for us to forward calls to a volunteer’s personal phone. We set up a "buddy system" between volunteers answering phones to help mitigate for the fact that they no longer had staff to rely on as backup question-answerers. This helped ease the stress on our volunteers dealing with difficult situations. It has turned out to be a great, hands-off way that we can help our community and keep our volunteers safe.

2. No-contact on-site shifts: Once it became obvious that the physical distancing measures would be required beyond a couple of weeks, it was time to figure out a way to bring volunteers back to the center without being IN the center. Since most animals are housed in detached outside enclosures, we modified our daily work-plan to include socially-distanced volunteers who never have to enter the main building. With less opportunity for face to face communication, it's important to have thorough care checklists, and diet prep has to happen beforehand. After those things were in-order, it was actually a relatively seamless transition to bring volunteers in for animal care shifts in our outdoor enclosures.

3. Maximize staff time by cutting extraneous tasks: Excluding volunteers from the building put considerable strain on our staff members’ time. The first task on the chopping block was providing good Samaritans updates about the animals they bring in. Put it like this: the 10 minutes we spend explaining our treatment plan is 10 minutes we could be using to execute that plan. When you multiply that by the 30+ patients we get every day, the choice is clear.

Despite the challenge of a global pandemic, we’ve been able to keep up with the wildlife care demands during baby bird season—our busiest time of year. Though there are no doubt many challenges ahead, we’re confident we’ll continue to find ways to provide the best care possible to native wildlife.

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